artistic illustration of a Grecian urn set against a backdrop of hills and columns

Ode on a Grecian Urn

by John Keats

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What is the theme of John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

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One major theme of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is that a beautiful work of art brings comfort and joy to the viewer. In this poem, the narrator gazes at the picture on an ancient Greek urn. It shows a pagan springtime festival, with musicians and young lovers ready to kiss. As the narrator contemplates this scene, he becomes more and more ecstatic. How "happy" the scene is and always will be! It will always be springtime, the leaves will always be on the trees, the lovers will always be young and in love, the musicians will be always playing their tunes. The narrator, as his enthusiasm rises to a crescendo in the third stanza, repeats the word happy six times:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves ...
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
                For ever panting, and for ever young ...
 
To the narrator, the scene of the vase captures immortality and eternal youth, two deep desires of the heart. Isn't this better to be a work of art, he thinks, than to face "breathing human passion" that can leave us sorrowful and unfulfilled?
 
Yet the narrator also wonders about the problems freezing time could bring: what about the town that has been emptied of its people for the festival? Won't it be forever "desolate?" Isn't the flip side of freezing the moment the danger of being caught in the wrong moment?
 
But the narrator quickly moves back to his ecstatic contemplation of the urn, praising it in the next stanza with exclamation points: "O Attic [Greek] shape! Fair attitude!" He ends by saying that when his own generation is old and gone, the urn will still remain and bring comfort and joy to future generations.  
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What is the theme of "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

This is a very interesting question, because, as with some great poems, it is very difficult to highlight one particular theme with any great authority. In this ode, the speaker addresses an antique Greek vase on which two painted scenes appear. In the first scene, gods or men pursue maidens in a forest setting while musicians play. In the second scene, a crowd of people and a priest lead a young cow toward an altar for a ritual sacrifice. The mood here is solemn and mournful in contrast with the feverish excitement of the first scene. In the final stanza, the speaker's aim is ambiguous: He may be celebrating the urn as a symbol of eternal art and idealised beauty, but he may be commenting on the limitations of art and the need to find fulfillment in living life.

In this poem, bit by bit, a miniature world of human passions comes alive, only to remind us that it is as dead as the clay on which it is represented. Keats has shown us that in the midst of change, art seems to provide the only truth. Yet this is a truth that depends not on sensory experience, but on the human imagination:

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shall remain, in midst of other woe

than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Thus this Ode acts as a pageant of Art and its truth-giving properties against the death and destruction that destroys all other forms of "Truth" in our society.

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What is the theme of the poem by Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

In a way, it's hard to be clear about the theme of "Ode to a Grecian Urn" because two of the key lines are still debated. The debate is about the meaning of:

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The debate also encompasses a question about to whom the final lines of the ode are addressed. Some opinions are that they address the urn, the reader, or the figures on the urn. An ode is a lyric poem in high diction written to a person or thing, usually absent. This is a five stanza ode that does not adhere to a strict three stanza strophe, antistrophe, epode form. It has a unique rhyme scheme that varies per stanza. For example, using different rhyming words, stanza one has this rhyme scheme ababcdedce, while the second stanza has this one ababcdeced.

A defensible analysis is that, while the final lines of stanza four address the "little town" pictured on the urn, the fifth stanza addresses the Grecian urn just as the first does. The fifth stanza starts with the apostrophe "O Attic shape! Fair attitude!" "Attic" mean of Grecian origin. "Fair attitude" is a metonymy based on the urn's graceful form. If this is taken to be correct, then the debated lines about 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' can be analyzed as the main theme of the ode.

In the fourth stanza Keats asks a good many questions, e.g., "Who are these coming to the sacrifice?". The ending lines on beauty answer these questions saying that the urn represents beauty and that is all the viewer needs to know about the urn. In other words, the urn should be enjoyed and valued for the beauty it offers whether the story behind it can ever be sorted out or not. Thus the main theme would be that beauty is all the truth that need be known about art and that the truth about the importance of art is that it gives beauty.

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What is the overall theme of Keats' poem, "Ode to a Grecian Urn"?

One of the main themes is time.  Time has been frozen in the scenes on the urn; however, the narrator ponders how the lovers will never actually kiss, for example, so they won't ever be able to realize thier love, etc.  Another main theme is one of truth and beauty, but not in tne normal sense.  The narrator seems to imply that:

..."truth is beauty, beauty truth" only applies in the place where all activity is stuck in one moment. We can certainly see the beauty: the lovers are in love, the music of the pipe is sweet, the trees are always full, and the people attending the sacrifice have the joy of anticipation. But where is the truth in all of this? It is a limited truth. (Enotes)

 

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